Research consistently points out that project success is strongly affected by the degree to which a project has the support of top management and that ties directly into your ability to handle managing upward relations. Such support is reflected in an appropriate budget, responsiveness to unexpected needs, and a clear signal to others in the organization of the importance of cooperation.

Managing upward relations

Visible top management support is not only critical for securing the support of other managers within an organization, but it also is a key factor in the project manager’s ability to motivate the project team. Nothing establishes a manager’s right to lead more than her ability to defend.

To win the loyalty of team members, project managers have to be effective advocates for their projects. They have to be able to get top management to rescind unreasonable demands, provide additional resources, and recognize the accomplishments of team members. In short, it means you are managing upward relations. Unfortunately, this is more easily said than done.

Managing upward relations with top management is a common source of consternation. Laments like the following are often made by project managers about upper management:

  • They don’t know how much it sets us back losing Neil to another project.
  • I would like to see them get this project done with the budget they gave us.
  • I just wish they would make up their minds as to what is really important.

While it may seem counter-intuitive for a subordinate to “manage” a superior, smart project managers devote considerable time and attention to influencing and garnering the support of top management. Project managers have to accept profound differences in perspective and become skilled at the art of persuading superiors. This is what managing upward relations is really is all about.

Many of the tensions that arise between upper management and project managers are a result of differences in perspective. Project managers become naturally absorbed with what is best for their project. To them the most important thing in the world is their project. Top management should have a different set of priorities. They are concerned with what is best for the entire organization. It is only natural for these two interests to conflict at times.

For example, a project manager may lobby intensively for additional personnel only to be turned down because top management believes that the other departments cannot afford a reduction in staff. Although frequent communication can minimize differences, the project manager has to accept the fact that top management is inevitably going to see the world differently.

Once project managers accept that disagreements with superiors are more a question of perspective than substance, they can focus more of their energy on the art of managing upward relationships. But before they can persuade superiors, they must first prove loyalty.

Loyalty in this context simply means that most of the time project managers have to show that they consistently follow through on requests and adhere to the parameters established by top management without a great deal of grumbling or fuss. Once managers have proven loyalty to upper management, senior management is much more receptive to their challenges and requests.

Project managers have to cultivate strong ties with upper managers who are sponsoring the project. As noted earlier, these are high-ranking officials who championed approval and funding of the project; as such, their reputations are aligned with the project.

Sponsors are also the ones who defend the project when it is under attack in upper circles of management. They shelter the project from excessive interference. Project managers should always keep such people informed of any problems that may cause embarrassment or disappointment.

For example, if costs are beginning to outrun the budget or a technical glitch is threatening to delay the completion of the project. managers make sure that the sponsors are the first to know. Timing is everything. Asking for additional budget the day after disappointing third-quarter earnings are reported is going to be much more difficult than making a similar request four weeks later.

Effective project managers pick the optimum time to appeal to top management. They enlist their project sponsors to lobby their cause. They also realize there are limits to top management’s accommodations.

Here, the Lone Ranger analogy is appropriate—you have only so many silver bullets, so use them wisely. Project managers need to adapt their communication pattern to that of the senior group.

For example, one project manager recognized that top management had a tendency to use sports metaphors to describe business situations, so she framed a recent slip in schedule by admitting that “we lost five yards, but we still have two plays to make a first down.”

Smart project managers learn the language of top management and use it to their advantage.

Finally, a few project managers admit ignoring chains of command. If they are confident that top management will reject an important request and that what they want to do will benefit the project, they do it without asking permission. While acknowledging that this is very risky, they claim that bosses typically won’t argue with success.

Image courtesy of Freepik.

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